In decathlons, participants line up for each event in the overall order they stand at the time.
So when Clemson's fifth-year senior Eric Lander saw University of Virginia freshman Sean Sullivan directly behind him going into the final event of last month's Atlantic Coast Conference championships, the question that followed was obvious.
"What are you doing here?" said Lander, who went on to win his second ACC title.
Sullivan's reply was that he had a solid second day, particularly in the pole vault and javelin, but a better answer may have been "Feeling right at home."
His second-place finish at the ACC championship was one of the best showings ever for a Virginia freshman. The McDonogh graduate from Sykesville has adjusted well to all the demands his first year at a major Division I college has brought -- a full load of classes, the rigorous practice schedule and all the other things that go into being away from home for the first time.
"A lot of days you're studying late and don't feel like going to practice the next day, or maybe you're sore from all the running you did the day before and you think about all these other people who have the time to do a lot of other things," Sullivan said. "But you realize you have a gift and some of those people would like to be in your position.
"You have to be mentally tough. If you don't have the fire to come out to practice and give it your all, you're not going to get everything you can out of it."
That's why Sullivan gets up every morning at 7 to get to his 8 a.m. class. There's a little break to get breakfast before his 10 a.m. class begins. He gets back to his room early in the afternoon to get some work done or just relax before his three- to four-hour practice starts at 2: 30 p.m. At night, he's studying, trying to get everything done by Friday so he can have some fun on Saturday, his only day off.
Something is missing.
"Don't worry, I have time to eat," Sullivan said. "There's an express lunch from the cafeteria I take back to my room and there's a special athletic dining hall that stays open until 7: 30 for dinner after practice. Sometimes, when practice runs late, we'll go out and get something to eat."
McDonogh provided Sullivan with a good start and his lean 6-foot-5 frame is ideal for a decathlete. In earning first-team All-Metro honors last year, he was the only metro area male to be ranked in five events in the state -- pole vault, high jump, discus and both hurdles. In his first two years at McDonogh, where he also was a standout football and basketball player, he participated only in the discus and high jump.
"[Assistant coach] Dick Estes got me into the whole decathlon thing. He said I had the body type for decathlons and worked with me to get me along that path," Sullivan said. "It was a big advantage coming in as a freshman having done a couple of decathlons in high school. I was fairly familiar with all the events."
There were still plenty of changes to be made when he got to Virginia. With the help of assistant track and field coach Scott Steffan, a former decathlete at the University of New Mexico, Sullivan totally revamped his techniques in a number of events.
"Sean's a real hard worker who really wants to do well. We've changed some technical faults. The field events is something we're working on, and his throws have improved," Steffan said.
"He's pretty consistent with all 10 events. There's not one outstanding event and not one poor event -- that's a good trademark for a decathlete.
"What impresses me most is how he may have a bad event but is able to just move on. He's pretty good at doing that."
Sullivan wasn't expecting to make such an immediate impact, but he saw steady improvement culminate in an indoor meet during the winter season where he achieved personal records in each of the 10 events.
He went on from there to gain a top-three finish at the ACC championships this spring -- "a loose goal."
He finished second with 6,847 points, well past his goal of 6,600 points.
"You don't usually hear about a freshman coming in and even taking third or fourth, just because freshmen aren't familiar with some of the events," Steffan said.
Sullivan hopes the grueling two-day, 10-event decathlon he's grown to love can someday lead him to the Olympics. In his high school days, he recalls soaking up some sun in between events.
Now, he's more serious, sure to find some shade with a towel over his head and plenty of fluids around.
Pub Date: 5/05/96